Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Augustine on Unconditional Election, Part 1 of 3

The unconditional nature of salvation lies in the fact that whatever God commands one to do can only be done if God wills it and will be done if God wills it; this is the essence of monergism. God’s will is both necessary and sufficient to fulfill His purpose and desires, and Augustine too recognized this, as was seen in chapters 41-43 of On Grace and Free Will. Augustine more particularly characterizes God’s complete sovereignty in relation to soteric matters, however, lest one believe it to be an exception because it involves the limitations of the will of man.

The Grace of Christ

“What wise insight of the man of God, drawn from the very fountain of God’s grace!“God,” says he, “calls whomsoever He deigns, and whom He wills He makes religious.” See whether this is not the prophet’s own declaration: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and will show pity on whom I will be pitiful;” and the apostle’s deduction there from: “So then,” says he, “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.” Now, when even his model man of our own times says, that “whomsoever God deigns He calls, and whom He wills He makes religious,” will any one be bold enough to contend that that man is not yet religious “who hastens to the Lord, and desires to be directed by Him, and makes his own will depend upon God’s; who, moreover, cleaves so closely to the Lord, that he becomes (as the apostle says) ‘one spirit’ with Him?” Great, however, as is this entire work of a “religious man,” Pelagius maintains that “it is effected only by the freedom of the will.” But his own blessed Ambrose, whom he so highly commends in word, is against him, saying, “The Lord God calls whomsoever He deigns, and whom He wills He makes religious.” It is God, then, who makes religious whomsoever He pleases, in order that he may “hasten to the Lord, and desire to be directed by Him, and make his own will depend upon God’s, and cleave so closely to the Lord as to become (as the apostle says) ‘one spirit’ with Him;” and all this none but a religious man does. Who, then, ever does so much, unless he be made by God to do it?”(Chapter 51)

Drawing upon previous observations regarding the total depravity of man and the necessity of regenerative, effectual grace, Augustine approvingly cites Ambrose. The irony of the passage is that Pelagius had contended in his work to which Augustine is responding that their contemporaries (Ambrose specifically) believed that salvation is “effected only by the freedom of the will,” whereas the reality could not be more to the contrary. Augustine had already used Scripture to confound Pelagius’ teachings, so in the three chapters prior to chapter 51, Augustine used Ambrose alone to show just how alone Pelagius was in his understanding. I can’t help but call attention to the fact that before he cites Ambrose, however, Augustine notes: 

““The blessed Bishop Ambrose,” says [Pelagius], “in whose writings the Roman faith shines forth with especial brightness, and whom the Latins have always regarded as the very flower and glory of their authors, and who has never found a foe bold enough to censure his faith or the purity of his understanding of the Scriptures.” Observe the sort as well as the amount of the praises which he bestows; nevertheless, however holy and learned he is, he is not to be compared to the authority of the canonical Scripture.” (Chapter 47)

Augustine thought it unnecessary to appeal to a fellow Christian’s work because he knew that both are supposed to stem from Scripture alone. Only because he found Ambrose to be in complete alignment with Scripture did he also employ his words to refute Pelagius. Or to put it in Augustine’s terms:

“Accordingly, with respect also to the passages which he has adduced, not indeed from the canonical Scriptures, but out of certain treatises of catholic writers, I wish to meet the assertions of such as say that the said quotations make for him. The fact is, these passages are so entirely neutral, that they oppose neither our own opinion nor his. Amongst them he wanted to class something out of my own books, thus accounting me to be a person who seemed worthy of being ranked with them. For this I must not be ungrateful, and I should be sorry – so I say with unaffected friendliness – for him to be in error, since he has conferred this honour upon me. As for his first quotation, indeed, why need I examine it largely, since I do not see here the author’s name, either because he has not given it, or because from some casual mistake the copy which you forwarded to me did not contain it? Especially as in writings of such authors I feel myself free to use my own judgment (owing unhesitating assent to nothing but the canonical Scriptures), whilst in fact there is not a passage which he has quoted from the works of this anonymous author that disturbs me.” (On Nature and Grace, Chapter 71)

On the Spirit and the Letter

In this early Anti-Pelagian work, Augustine is chiefly concerned with expositing the meaning of 2 Corinthians 3:6 in light of the upcoming heresy. Trying to be justified through the Adamic covenant kills. Only when one turns to Christ and submits to the law of grace is one given new, everlasting life. Briefly addressing here what in later discourses he more thoroughly dissect, Augustine introduces the compatibility of human volition with divine sovereignty:

“God acts upon us by the incentives of our perceptions, to will and to believe, either externally by evangelical exhortations, where even the commands of the law also do something, if they so far admonish a man of his infirmity that he betakes himself to the grace that justifies by believing; or internally, where no man has in his own control what shall enter into his thoughts, although it appertains to his own will to consent or to dissent. Since God, therefore, in such ways acts upon the reasonable soul in order that it may believe in Him (and certainly there is no ability whatever in free will to believe, unless there be persuasion or summons towards some one in whom to believe), it surely follows that it is God who both works in man the willing to believe, and in all things prevents us with His mercy. To yield our consent, indeed, to God’s summons, or to withhold it, is (as I have said) the function of our own will. And this not only does not invalidate what is said, “For what hast thou that thou didst not receive?” but it really confirms it. For the soul cannot receive and possess these gifts, which are here referred to, except by yielding its consent. And thuswhatever it possesses, and whatever it receives, is from God; and yet the act of receiving and having belongs, of course, to the receiver and possessor. Now, should any man be for constraining us to examine into this profound mystery, why this person is so persuaded as to yield, and that person is not, there are only two things occurring to me, which I should like to advance as my answer: “O the depth of the riches!” and “Is there unrighteousness with God?” If the man is displeased with such an answer, he must seek more learned disputants; but let him beware lest he find presumptuous ones.”(Chapter 60)

Because the doctrine of sola gratia is paid lip service by most groups perceived to exist within Christendom, the idea that what we have is from God alone is attributed, more often than not, to the Pelagianistic sense that the natural capacity the will is such as it is because of God alone, so all the good merits we do by that natural capacity should be attributed to God alone. Leaving aside the fact that this would force one to attribute evil merits to God alone as well, a synergist might agree with most of what Augustine says here. They would agree God acts upon us, they would pay lip service to sola gratia, and they would agree that we are being persuaded or “wooed” to exercise the function of our will – viz. volition – to God.

What a synergist would have difficulty harmonizing, however, is in the final sentences of the paragraph, in which Augustine discusses the reasons why one is actually persuaded and another is not. Augustine believes it to be inscrutable why one should not believe and another should, and insofar as the synergist cannot explain the reasons one human autonomously believes in Christ and another autonomously denies Him, they might agree. But Augustine rather attributes the inscrutability to God’s will! This implies two things: God unconditionally chooses whom He will persuade, and those whom He persuades will be persuaded. If this is not so, why would Augustine hasten to defend God’s righteousness? What relevance would that have to the discussion if human autonomy is what he is really defending as the reason one believes and another does not? Augustine phrases this inscrutability more explicitly in Book 1 of his Against Two Letters of the Pelagians:

“Did the men of God who wrote these things – nay, did the Spirit of God Himself, under whose guidance such things were written by them – assail the free will of man? Away with the notion! But He has commended both the most righteous judgment and the most merciful aid of the Omnipotent in all cases. For it is enough for man to know that there is no unrighteousness with God. But how He dispenses those benefits, making some deservedly vessels of wrath, others graciously vessels of mercy, who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor? If, then, we attain to the honour of grace, let us not be ungrateful by attributing to ourselves what we have received. “For what have we which we have not received?”” (Chapter 38)

It is not by any doing of ours that we are vessels of mercy, yet the fact that we are vessels of mercy does not assail our free will insofar as we “receive” or “yield consent to” the benefits of a vessel of mercy. God’s acting upon us “externally” and “internally” also do not take away from the fundamental characteristic of the will; these unconditioned choices and actions of God “confirm” our volition, actually, as it is only through these unconditioned choices that we are able and willing to will and do what is good. Finally, as grace is unobligated, the inscrutability of God’s choosing to persuade one (or choosing one to be a vessel of mercy) to consent to His commands and choosing not to persuade another (choosing on to be a vessel of wrath) does not affect the righteousness or justice of God.

The Gift of Perseverance

His last explicitly Anti-Pelagian work, The Gift of Perseverance, Augustine designed to eradicate the remnants of Pelagianism by ascribing no merit as the basis for God’s grace. Naturally, as a monergist, Augustine drew allusions in grace in perseverance to that of God’s electing and predestining grace. As he writes in chapter 13:

“…after the fall of man, God willed it to pertain only to His grace that man should approach to Him; nor did He will it to pertain to aught but His grace that man should not depart from Him.”

Nor does Augustine exclude faith from the sole means by which one comes to God:

“…it is not in the power of men, but in that of God, that men have power to become sons of God. Because they receive it from Him who gives pious thoughts to the human heart, by which it has faith, which worketh by love; for the receiving and keeping of which benefit, and for carrying it on perseveringly unto the end, we are not sufficient to think anything as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God, in whose power is our heart and our thoughts.” (Chapter 20)

Our faith is predicated on our thoughts, so our “pious thoughts” are said to be the power by which we become sons of God. As Augustine mentions, such thoughts are given to us by God; hence, God’s grace alone is not only necessary but sufficient to cause us to believe – another implicit citation of irresistible grace – and so God’s allotting of this grace must not be according to one’s faith [and works], as it is the grace itself which causes faith [and works]. This argument is worked out in Augustine’s other works, as will be shown later.

A related argument is that one who asserts God’s “foreknowledge” refers to a sort of crystal-ball analogy so as to preserve a faulty notion of free will is thereby debunked, as any “foresight” God has of one’s faith in Him or good works is grounded in God having chosen and caused one to have faith and good works logically prior to such foresight. To put it simply, foresight of our merits implies God has first predestined one to those merits. Otherwise, it would not be by God’s grace alone that we become sons of God, nor would God’s will alone be sufficient for us. So, unsurprisingly, we see Augustine tease out the same conclusion:

“No one, therefore, who understands these things is permitted to doubt that, when the apostle says, “God hath not cast away His people whom He foreknew,” He intended to signify predestination. For He foreknew the remnant which He should make so according to the election of grace. That is, therefore, He predestinated them; for without doubt He foreknew if He predestinated; but to have predestinated is to have foreknown that which He should do.” (Chapter 47)

Bringing together the doctrines which have so far been discussed (Total Depravity, Irresistible/Regenerative Grace, and Unconditional Election), here is a fitting passage on which to end this post:

“Neither would inability to believe have been a hindrance to them, if they had been so predestinated as that God should illuminate those blind eyes, and should will to take away the stony heart from those hardened ones. But what the Lord said of the Tyrians and Sidonians may perchance be understood in another way: that no one nevertheless comes to Christ unless it were given him, and that it is given to those who are chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, he confesses beyond a doubt who hears the divine utterance, not with the deaf ears of the flesh, but with the ears of the heart…”(Chapter 35)


Augustine believed that:

1. “God calls whomsoever He deigns, and whom He wills He makes religious.”

2. “it is God… who makes religious whomsoever He pleases” such that no one hastens to, depends upon, cleaves to, nor desires God “unless he be made by God...”

3. because “God acts upon us by the incentives of our perceptions, to will and to believe… whatever [man] possesses, and whatever [man] receives, is from God...”

4. the mystery of why one should be persuaded of the gospel and another should not lies, not in human autonomy, but in “the depths of His riches!”

5. we should not attribute what we have received to ourselves, because it is according to God‘s own mind and counsel that “He dispenses those benefits, making some deservedly vessels of wrath, others graciously vessels of mercy...”

6. “God willed it to pertain only to His grace that man should approach to Him…"

7. Christians “receive [the power to become sons of God] from Him who gives pious thoughts to the human heart, by which it has faith...”

8. “we are not sufficient to think anything as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God, in whose power is our heart and our thoughts.”

9. “no one… comes to Christ unless it were given him, and that it is given to those who are chosen in Him before the foundation of the world...”

10. foreknowledge “signif[ies] predestination.”

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